The Great Adventures of the Climbing Elvises
Posted on: May 30, 2008
It was one of those great ideas, "lets climb the highest peak in Iceland in the darkness of winter and lets do it by a long route." And we decided to go for it. This was the 7th of. Two days later we were cruising highway 1. We arrived at the base at about 00:30 on Saturday (10th Jan.) and started right away, just to get to a decent camping ground. The route we had picked was well from the ordinary, long and fairly exposed.
The morning was beautiful, so we didn't hurry. We had all day plus Sunday as well. Progress was quite slow and we camped early on the ridge, around 1500m. The evening was beautiful, one of those that make you understand why it's all worthwhile.
Now, for those who don't know Iceland. In January the days are short. Horribly short! We're talking about 5 hours daylight max. And it's also very cold.
When we woke up on the 11th we didn't know that this would be one of those days that would never leave our memories. The wind had picked up so we decided to go light. That meant we had to dig some of our stuff. We only took essentials like two candy bars per person, a rope, our climbing gear and some water. We took a GPS-mark on our dig to be sure to find it again. And so we went on.
The wind intensified as we climbed. Were turning around? No sir! Tough keep going! Or was it dumb guys don't turn around??? I forget which is right. Anyway, we managed to crawl up to the summit. The weather was so bad by that time that we couldn't even talk to each other; we just nodded at each other and went down.
My goggles blew of my head on the summit so now I was almost blind on the highest point of Iceland in the middle of the winter, with only 2000m to descend. Life is full of obstacles to overcome! We managed to make some progress down the mountain, slowly, and then we ran out of food. No problem! We were getting close to our stash where there was food. So I took out the GPS. It was dead, not working, caput. Now what?
Lets take a moment to look at the situation; it's pretty obvious that we were in trouble. The wind was so strong that I had gone airborne twice. It was the worse weather either of us had seen. At one place were we had to rappel down, it was so windy that when we had thrown the rope out it went straight up into the air, like there was an Indian guy playing a flute in the cartoons, to get the rope up. You know what I mean!
Ok! So now the GPS didn't work. No problem! Lets take out the compass. It had a huge bobble in it so that didn't work either. Visibility was down to zero now, so our chances were slim on finding the catch. And the wind was so strong anyway that we couldn't spend any more time searching. Down we went. But not without more incidents.
We got lost! That's what happens when you're in deep shit. But our theory is; "Your not lost if you know where you're going!" So we kept on going. We didn't say much, just walked. It had been 12 hours since the last candy bar, 18 hours on the move and we were getting ourselves into bad areas. And then we found out that we didn’t know where we were!
After a short reconnaissance we figured out where we were. Got off the glacier and went to the nearest farm where there is also a gas station. It was very nice of the farmers to let us in since it was literally the middle of the night. At the farm we got some food and some more "good" news. The weather was not good. Actually, it was bad on the whole island. The guy on the farm told us that the highway was closed due to sand storms a few kilometres to the west. We decided to go the long way home, around the island. Just before we took off, the farm-guy let us know that that road was also closed, due to snowstorms.
Ok, caught in the storm, tired as hell. What to do??? MAD has a mom that talks on the phone much and she had let him know that his brother was in Hofn (village in Iceland). His brother is a sailor on a freight-ship and said that we could catch up with them in Hofn and tag along. We drove in the storm to the harbour, put the car in a container and sailed to Reykjavik!!! What a way to go home!
Now, the story is not over yet. I still had to get my tent back! So, two weeks latter we went back to our stash and tried to find it but it was under a lot of snow and ice. So we went back down and up again in April. Same story! Another try in June was more successful and we retrieved most of our stuff, except for half of my tent. BUMMER.
That summer I started to work as a guide and what do you think happened! I mentioned this story to one of the head guides and he started to smile. “What are you smile at" I asked him and he replied, “I found your other half of the tent". So what did we learn from the trip? Well, for one, The North Face tents are a piece of work because we used this tent on Denali two years later without any modification.
This is a great mountain, which deserves respect. I have been to the top 30+ times since this trip and I have not grown tired of it yet.
Posted on: May 23, 2008
Hands and face gnarled by a sun that has shone down and then back up for most of his life, pre-cancers pop up like bi-monthly crops to be frozen off at the mercy of his dermatologist. What does the good doctor think as she busies herself for the hour with this pleasant, skinny man and his cauliflower-like growths? Hard to see them as battle scars, and they’re certainly not rings in a tree — but with the right perspective, they could be seen as a combination of both; a sort of measurement of just how far out there he has been over his 50 odd years.
During his first visit, the doc may have frozen off cancers that set in sometime before the Logan trip — way back in the mid-70s, back when this man was a kid, rappelling hand over hand into crumbling Oregon quarries, exploring the Cascades, and joining that north-bound expedition to the Yukon’s glacial wilderness, descending from a success to find himself chest deep in the glacier, frightfully stammering “Crev-crevasse!” to his companions.
This is only the first visit...
The next appointment might account for his early visits to Alaska, building the cabin in the glacial flats south of the Range, following Terray’s footsteps up that ridge for thousands of feet to an almost mythological summit... that trip that started with the pilot sprinting as well as he could across the glacier away from the plane and a massive plume of ice and snow pouring down from thousands of feet above... The trip that ended with an 80 mile walk through savage country back to relative civilization, though the Parks Highway in the late 1970s could hardly be called civilized.
They keep coming back...
And so he built on layers. The sun stays up at this latitude, and through day and night under perpetual daylight he climbed so many mountains that he was among the first to set eyes on, peaks he named from Tolkien stories, names now seen on maps and in guidebooks. There was the time his partners left the range after a month of high adventure, and he stayed to build an igloo under Foraker’s massive, chaotic west face, and wait for a plane to eventually land on the Kahiltna. After 12 days of waiting there he flew out with Geeting and some puzzled oriental tourists.
Freeze them off again.
The helicopter ride up and down the Cassin with a terrified pilot in an ongoing aerial search for bodies that never would be found. The starving ski out of the Kichatnas, the ice axe and the porcupine meal, the roadhouse pantry. It turned out to be a failing kidney on that Denali traverse. All of the ramblings and wanderings, the ups and the downs, and all of the bad times, too. There were plenty of those. A wild life, incomprehensible to most, now brings him to the skin doctor’s office every few months.
And she knows just what to do.
This is a ritual for him now, part of his life. The growths come and go with the months and years. Climbers come into these mountains just as he has for 30 years. They all come in, and most of them leave. Zinc oxide goes on like thick, white paste as the next flight arrives on the glacier, and brightly clad mountaineers tumble out with all of their ambitions and expectations. They will probably leave, too, but few of them will know or understand the depth of this skinny man and his growths as they pass him by to begin their own adventures. And after they leave he will still be out there.
Posted on: May 22, 2008
Ames is having no luck waving down cars at midnight on Mexico-85 on a Friday in late August, and it’s because he’s using the one handed wave. I teach him the two handed wave with a headlamp in each hand, and in a few minutes a white minivan pulls over. The driver speaks English, but she's mean and says she can't help us. She has no phone, no room in her car, but she’ll alert a tow truck at the next stop. Whatever. We resume waving. A Jeep with Texas plates and a UT sticker pulls over, and we figure we’ve got it made. The young couple inside speaks only Spanish, but they have tools. They agree to tow us to Monterrey. We use our slackline to hitch the Escort to the Jeep. The driver tells us, we think, that we will go very slowly.
As soon as we are off the shoulder we are going 45 mph. Ames is in the drivers seat clutching the wheel. The road tips downhill and we go faster. There are high rock walls on either side of the road and the occasional pathetic, busted guardrail. The speedometer indicates that we are going 70, 75, then Jeep’s brake lights go on. Ames has to tap the Escort’s brake just right, so we don’t catapult into the Jeep. Stupid climbers, we never doubt the wide purple webbing and carabiners that are holding us to the Jeep, hurling downhill in the dark in neutral.
The next morning we set out to find a mechanico, and soon enough meet a guy named Pepe who does suspensions. Pepe opens the Escort’s hood, pokes around and declares that it is the transmission. And si, he can fix it for maybe 600 US dollars, maybe 700 it depends. We decide to leave the car at the Hotel Palmas, and go on to Hidalgo where our friend Luis at the La Posada campground will help us.
The proprietor of the Hotel Palmas will not let us leave the car in his lot unless we pay 15 US dollars a day. Ames refuses. The chica working at the hotel takes pity on the blue-eyed gringo and says we can leave the busted Escort outside her house just around the corner on Fidel Velasquez. Just tell her brother that she said it was ok and don't tell her boss.
Once we get to Hidalgo, Luis takes Ames back into Monterrey to talk with a transmission guy. I go to the Plutonia cave with Will C. from North Carolina, and have a lovely afternoon bouldering in the cave and taking pictures. Luis and Ames return around 5, with the Escort towed safely to Hidalgo and to Ariel's garage. Once we are home and we tell this story, everyone knows who we’re talking about. Ariel is, apparently, the man who fixes cars in Hidalgo. Ames has spent all afternoon drinking Sol, and we go climbing in the Virgin Canyon. He is more talkative than usual, and a most enthusiastic belayer, offering lots of encouragement and climbing confidently himself. It may have been unwise to climb with a drunk belayer, but my safety compass wavers according to the relative political stability of the nation I am in.
Sunday is rest day for Ariel, so we go climb on the spires. Ames spends a few minutes wildly humping the grande spire. Monday comes, the day we were scheduled to go home. I send a desperate email from a stranger’s laptop before the connection is lost. The weekend visitors are gone. Ames and I climb Estrelitas in about twenty minutes and realize that when it comes to multipitching we are an effective match. We teach ourselves to simulclimb, I introduce the ever-economical simulrappell. The car will not be ready until Tuesday. There is a used transmission in Monterrey and they will go and pick it up in the morning. And maybe a clutch while they’re in town. And maybe a transmission support. I suggest selling the car, and Ames laughs. I build a large barricade between Ames's side and my side of the borrowed 6-man tent. Ames is collecting empty Sol bottles for the 7-peso deposit. I put them all on his side. Everything in El Potrero Chico shuts down during the week in the off-season. The café and restaurant are shuttered, and the depositos along the road stay closed. You have to drive or hitch hike to town to get so much as a botella de Coca-Cola. On Tuesday Ames drives the car back to La Posada and I get all excited, but it's a lie, because it won't stay in 5th gear. We can't drive back in 4th? They have plans to remove the transmission tomorrow, fix it or get it fixed, put it back, and test it again. Everyone who meets Ames tells him he should drive a Honda or a Toyota, that this is happening because he drives a Ford. I suggest we sell the car. Ames wakes me up screaming “What?! What?!” in his sleep.
Wednesday it rains all day. I read a 2-year old issue of Cosmo, and suggested selling the car. I give Ames a Cosmo quiz, “How Needy is He?”. He is very needy. We try to read sex tips, but they are too graphic for our relationship to bear.
Thursday I go along to Ariel’s to check on the Escort. It is gutted, and Ariel has to take his in-laws to the hospital in Monterrey before he can work on it. The in-laws show up, along with a parrot in a cage, and Ariel declares that he will be done with it today, after the hospital. We hit the road that night at 8. As soon as we cross the border the transmission slips out of 5th.
Posted on: May 20, 2008
Ten feet above my last peice, I wedged my weary carcass in a left leaning airy chimney and looked for a place to die. It seemed as if any moment the bombay doors of the Enola Gay would open and drop my lifeless, tachycardic, oxygen deprived body back to dusty earth. I struggled to find purchase. I struggled to breath. I choked back the urge to vomit the 12 pack of High Life I'd consumed only hours prior the night before. A zen like state came over me......hypoxia perhaps? Maybe this is what it's like crossing over to the "other side". Just as the bright light beckoned me closer, the shouts and pity for my safety startled me from a dream like state. Surprisingly, my vitals signs appeared to be returning to a somewhat normal state. Fumbling akwardly, I realized it was time to get some gear in. After a clumsy game of charrades and a near dropped cam, I managed to place a less than optimal #2 Link cam above my head in a flaring shallow slot. With psychological pro in place, and a feeling of sinking despair, I set off into the wild blue yonder in search of gold. After an akward groveling mantle, the nausea returned stronger then ever, and the 8 inch ledge I was standing on seemed like the most appropriate place to unload last nights sinful spirits. With a solid left hand in a deep horizontal, I prepared for the enevitable. With fake tooth in right hand and properly balanced,the barbaric nature of my act became evident to anyone at the crag not already aware of my comical situation. I felt like a new man.....a worn out, exhausted, hung over man nontheless. The crux below me, and with hightened fervor, I set my eyes on the last 20ft. of southern sandstone between me and the top. The climbing was fun again. Positive holds and great exposure, I traversed up and right, placed a piece, then flopped my sick ass onto the tiny flat summit. Cheers and applause from below were dulled by the rythmic drumming of all my major organs. I was elated, the view amazing, and sense of accopmlishment fantastic. Little did I realize, the epic was not over just yet. I rigged for the rappel, tossed the rope, and looked forward to terra firma. About 15 ft. into the rappel, I felt the unmistakable sting and sudden hair raising pain that can only be produced by a stinger-equipped insect with a grudge. Soon his whole gang was joining in the fight like a well trained battalion of infantrymen. The pain and panic of the issue manifested itslef into violent outbursts of crude language and inaudible moans of agony. Swinging frantically and listing side to side trying to defend myself, I decided that a hasty descent was paramount. My belay device nearly melted my fingerprints, but i was back on Earth. Smiling wildly, and strangely enough, craving a beer, I sat down and tried to comprehend the events that had just transpired. A dream became reality. Reality,..a hazy dream.
Cragging on the Eiger
Posted on: May 19, 2008
Admit it or not, the majority of us live vicariously through the stories of great climbs and epics and as armchair mountaineers we climb higher, faster, and two grades harder than in reality. When we plan climbing trips we plan routes that are perfectly feasible ensconced in the safety of a recliner but usually have to be adjusted when the expectation hits the fan of reality.
My adjustment started when I leaned out straight-armed from an undercling and ice cold melt water slapped me in the face. “This move would be no big deal at the Gunks,” I thought with little conviction. I locked my hand in the crack, committed mentally, and my boots and momentary confidence skidded off into space. I hung by my hands wedged in the crack lined with jagged shards. The blood from my skinned knuckles mixed with the water trickling down my sleeves, the adrenaline blocking the pain. I quickly got my boot re-planted on an edge and glanced down at the rope running without protection to my belayer questionably anchored thirty feet below. The gaping void loomed beyond. My expectation met reality.
We had been climbing for twelve hours and it was becoming increasingly difficult, dark, cold, and wet. I finished the pitch and built yet another dubious anchor in the limestone choss. We were 2500 feet up on the North Pillar of the Eiger on snot-slick rock, without trustworthy protection, climbing in mountaineering boots, with 20 pound packs. An 800 pound Ogre sat on my shoulder planting doubt in my ear.
Legend has it that Eiger translated from German means ogre. There are three adjacent mountains: the Eiger (Ogre), Monch (Monk), and Jungfrau (Maiden). The Monk is situated between the Ogre and the Maiden and his job is to protect her virtue. The Ogre is the neighborhood bully who lurks in climber's heads messing with the psyche and planting doubt. “What are you doing here? You don't belong on the Eiger. You're not a hardman. You're a weekend cragger,” the Ogre chided.
My friend Peter and I came to Switzerland to climb the Eiger because it is “The Eiger.” We chose the Austrian Route on what is alternatively referred to as the North Pillar or Northeast Pillar a buttress that stands between the north and northeast faces. When we arrived in Grund it had just stopped raining and waterfalls streamed off the mountain. Grund is at the bottom of the valley at an elevation of about 3,000 feet. The Eiger, at a little over 13,000 feet, looms 10,000 feet above the village. Just gaping up at the wall is enough to let the Ogre into your head.
The next morning was crystal clear and we started climbing at daylight. The North Pillar being a buttress is relatively safe from the rock fall that the Eiger is so infamous for. The climbing was not technically difficult but it required complete focus as it was all loose with almost no protection. The higher we got the more doubt seeped in. “And what if you get to the snowfield above and it is all unconsolidated snow?” the Ogre asked.
Peter caught up to me at the belay and his hands were bleeding too. “Off route maybe?” the Ogre whispered. We looked up at the flatiron above and knew that we could not make our intended bivy ledge and had to find a place soon. We couldn't find even a semi-flat ledge and nothing dry. At 9:00 p.m. we decided to rappel down to the last place where we remembered a possible bivouac. Three pitches down on a small ledge Peter pounded in a couple of knifeblade pitons that we were reasonably confident in and we anchored everything and crawled into our bivy bags at 11:30 p.m.
Sleep was intermittent at best. We huddled shivering in freezing temperatures, the rock sucking the warmth out of us, the wind fluttering our bivy bags with every gust. However uncomfortable, we were in control. No Ogre haunted my dreams.
The next morning a waterfall was running full torrent from the snowfield over the route. I noticed that one of our ropes had an encounter with a rock and the core was showing. The Ogre was sitting on my chest with my arms pinned down. “Give yet?” he taunted. It did not take much to convince one another that we should head down with the plan to climb the Mittellegi Ridge instead.
We started rappelling at daybreak searching for good rock, pounding in pitons and leaving gear for anchors as we descended. We did so many raps that I lost count but it took most of the day and a good chunk of my rack. The Ogre got in a final kick in the teeth when we rapped down a waterfall and got our rope stuck, requiring me to solo in a shower of ice water to free it. After glissading down the Honysch glacier we were back at the Apiglen train station in the throngs of Japanese tourists who descended on us like paparazzi on pop stars. The weekend craggers survived the Eiger, but got their ass kicked. Out of my flash burnt retinas I saw the Ogre triumphantly swagger off through the crowd wearing the slings I left behind as a necklace.
A week later on August 1st, 2005 we reached the summit of the Eiger via our Plan B, the Mittellegi Ridge. As we descended down the south ridge I saw the Ogre on the summit muttering and shaking his fists.
Posted on: May 17, 2008
A tiny white void — a kind of cosmic tumbleweed bouncing north on the Ruth glacier, an isolated sphere of humanity in close orbit to the earth. I see only white, I hear my own deep breaths interrupted by great, rumbling crashes from either side of the invisible gorge like massive, curling waves against a rocky shore somewhere out there. Over and over again. Everything is falling apart out there in the universe. Skiing through a sickly damp fog, I look up from my skis and the snow fuses to the nebulous cloud without distinction. My eyes follow the green rope through the white to Cody’s dark silhouette. Cody. You fucker. I want nothing to do with you. That’s what I’m thinking. I’m thinking I need out of here right now. But I get a little dizzy looking at what may as well be the glacier all around me — I don’t even think about looking up — so I look at my skis again because they tell me which way is down. Kick, kick, kick. Break the monotony. Kick-glide... kick-glide... Sweet Jesus — I think I might be skiing into the air. Don’t think too hard. Fog and sweat bead in my hair and on my forehead.
I’ve counted 10 days since I drove her to the airport to catch a midnight flight to see her parents in Arizona. We talked a little on the way, but it was really awful. I mostly just stared itinerantly through the windshield at the red glow of tail lights, stretching row after row after row on into the wet Anchorage night as we moved from stoplight to stoplight. I couldn’t look at her as she plied me with trite conversational cues to which I had no answer.
“Look...” I flick the rope aside and it loops over itself to rest behind me as I stop. “The other birds just ripped it apart... Huh.” Cody sees something that hasn’t yet come into my sphere. He starts skiing again and I watch the loop straighten back out in front of me before resuming my slog. I’m kicking and gliding and watching my skis slide through yesterday’s tracks when I see faint whisps of soft, dark grey down feathers spotting the snow, frozen tentatively to its slushy surface, beading moisture like eery morning dew. The down feathers lead to dark black flight feathers that wreath an unfortunate raven’s skeleton. All of my kicking and gliding slows a little bit to take a look at the bird. Its bones are picked clean. Black, empty eye sockets stare back at me. The rope tugs at my waist and I stumble a little before I regain my stride.
She is already a month along now. His eyes widened and his jaw dropped as he slid down the bench seat, pressing himself tight against the passenger door as we rattled up the Parks Highway to the Y and Talkeetna. Maybe he was making room for what I had said — getting a good look at it settling in on the bench seat between us to join our flight into the Range. He says it slowly: “Holy shit... are you sure you want to go on this trip?”
The Utah guys have been gone for three days now. We watched them move quickly up the Japanese couloir the first clear night after the four day storm that saw us down to our last drop of booze. “Maybe we should do that instead of Ham and Eggs tomorrow — those guys are cruising.” Now we ski past their camp, empty and eerie in the fog. After another day their bodies are seen in a heap of dedris high above the gorge, and we are rummaging through the food that the mountaineering patrol has recovered. I feel sick with my desire to stay, but I still take a bag of dried fruit and nuts, some pasta, and a package of sausage. They must have been so excited packing all this shit. This trip was going to be great, I’m sure, and they would return home happy and satisfied with their adventures so far away in the wild north. Their families and girlfriends would be amazed by their stories and pictures. Next year maybe they would go for something bigger. The Llama touches down and rangers begin the body recovery, while volunteers pack the men’s belongings, and we continue scavenging.
Days go by and we do nothing but grow apart, mental islands in the snow, frozen banana republics snapping in and out of civil war. Our trip was over before we landed, and I am resigned to this awful waiting without any focus but the mess I am responsible for at home. What did she tell her parents? What will I tell mine? Will I make enough money this summer? I’ll be living in a fucking truck-bed trailer; how can I make this work? Well, as long as we’re not getting after it, we’re not getting hurt, right? So what’s in the medicine cabinet... hydrocodone? Best taken with whiskey.
These mountains molt and shed their winter coats now, these mountains show me only what I already know. Two weeks ago they were a beautiful challenge that I would confidently face. Now they are silent bastions of death that exacerbate my inadequacies with their looming, sentinel presence. Cocooned in polargard, I am dreaming. I am warm and dreaming that I have nothing to worry about. I have been laying like this for a long time now, and I don’t realize that my face is sideways in a puddle of my own vomit until Cody tells me so.
I have burned badly this time. At home I am dimly aware of it all — I can still hear the violent collapse of what once was. Seasons change, the dead stay gone, the living offer little solace, and the abortion is scheduled. It will be a long time before I find my way out of this fog.
Posted on: May 15, 2008
Chapped hands shook, sunscreen burned my eyes, the curve of the earth rolled out before us.
As I really knew no one there, conversation was minimal. It occurred to me that experiences only become real when shared with another. That a moment spent truly alone quickly fades from memory and blinks out of being.
Existence is shared by it’s very nature, an entity cannot exist without it’s counterpart. At this idea’s most basic core matter an anti-matter burst out of nothingness, the “big bang,” and only survive so long as they are separated.
Even our most obscure moments are alluded to by the choreography of the rest of the day.
To live is to share
Posted on: May 9, 2008
for Steph Davis
Triangles of earth rise steeply in prayer.
Clean lines carry steps and the rhythm
of an un-tethered worshiper,
breathless. You reach the crux,
scrub away the myth of "what if" and find
fragile footprints, a small voice
pulling you up.
I reach up, catch these words from the sky
floating down from your voice and know:
it's not what but how
it's not where but with whom
and the answer
You Don't Need A Weatherman To Know Which Way the Wind Blows
Posted on: May 6, 2008
Shiprock; Tse’ Bit’a’i’
We parked the poor truck in an arroyo, abandoning it to be scoured by the wind or worse. We thought it might be the price of admission, but the insurance was paid. Cold fingers in a shaded cave weren’t happy with the first few overhung feet, but the gully’s curves opened up and we wandered convoluted lines upwards to a notch. Left a bit of rope hanging on the rappel gully for the return, just like it said to do in Fifty Classics—a vertical Ariadna’s thread. The route forward a condensation of all our previous days spent on rock: climb up, to rap down, to climb up, to rap down, to climb up again. Without understanding why it was important, I mislead the traverse pitch: angled too high, backed up, traversed all over again. Three in one I suppose. Then the little tricky bit and the double overhang took us up to the exposed moves of the lizard’s face on the horn. The wind started to blow just below the summit, while we were eating apples and cheese brought from some other world to this Navajo Nation.
Even in 1997 the summit register was scant, though some of the names felt sacred. Something else was sacred to us, sitting up there on the topmast, but perhaps we did not enunciate our reverence and awe well enough. We two trespassers who left no incense on that altar, save our own names scribbled in pencil on a pad, rolled in a tube, and shoved in a crack.
To our surprise new bolts seemed to show a rappel route that went straight down a crumbling face; Beyer beware we thought, but clipped in and rapped down anyway. After half a length the wind picked up the ropes hanging below me and floated them in long streams above me, so I choose to stop on a ridge off to the side. I wanted to retrace my steps back down and avoid the unknown wall below or I was afraid the rope would catch when we tried to retrieve it. It had happened to us before, descents came with snags.
So I told you to do it. You pulled the rope when you found the anchors that I had passed in order to get to the comfort of the ledge. Together we stood, not twenty feet apart, yet you could not throw the ropes to me, and I could not climb back over to you, nor could you climb back up above me alone.
Perhaps our apprenticeship was insufficient, maybe there was something that we missed, but either way the cord came untied. I stood alone on a ridge still ridiculously harnessed, and you were roped into a dubious way down. We were divided by the edge, while the coils of rope kept ballooning out backwards over our heads, untouchable for me, uncontrollable for you: rock with wings. The light went out while we raged in timeless, fruitless, repetitive motion trying to reconnect: throw the ropes, blast of wind, throw the ropes, blast of wind.
I began to understand my earlier error. I would go down the way I had come up. If I could commit to this singular course of action I would sweep my steps in the darkness with the rock my only witness. Humility would lead me to the ground again.
We decided to part. I would go down west. You would go down east. We agreed that whoever got down first would wait—(would wait how long exactly?)—and then go for help to those very homes we had slipped silently past without asking. You disappeared over the edge.
I paused at the double overhang, the ground, hidden by the night, didn’t seem so far below. I felt enveloped by the curves, the air settled, the mountain relaxed. And because of my earlier error while leading the traverse, I knew I could avoid down climbing the little tricky bit and instead scrambled up in order to angle back across to the gully. Where I was glad to find our rope still hanging, and hand over hand scuffed my way up. I took the rope back instead of leaving it fixed, even though we had decreed it to be trash while standing on top. Which forethought got me entirely down, as the last thirty feet into the cave wouldn’t yield holds for my feet just then. So maybe the rope did stay behind after all. Can’t remember truthfully, and unfortunately things such as these become less clear when you’re back on the ground. But I cannot forget how you made it down too by your own navigation of the night sky, or how we embraced in the dark there at the base.
I drove through the Navajo Nation again in 2007. In southern Colorado, while leaving Cortez, suddenly the sand blistered the rented sedan with the thrown weight of the wind. Visibility was measured in yards for miles. The mountain kept itself hidden until it was too close for me to sneak up on. In fact it frightened me a little when it finally did show itself, and I lingered in its shadow only for a short time before driving back into the sandstorm. In another thirty miles the wind died down completely, stopping as suddenly as it had started.
When I was twenty-six I climbed Shiprock. I did not ask permission, but crept in like a thief. At thirty-six now I would not ask permission, but I have learned that it is good that there are places where we cannot go. I will not climb Tse’ Bit’a’i’, but I am well pleased that once I swept my footsteps from its wings.
The Plastic Age
Posted on: May 5, 2008
Two thousand feet above the ground, Ian stretched out on his porta-ledge that was precariously hanging from the rock face of El Capitan in Yosemite.
Tomorrow, early, he would push with all his strength for the summit, but tonight he would sway under the stars by a thread and ignore the world below.
Ian licked the cold tin of his last can of tuna like a starving cat and then gulped down some crackers and warm water. The last pools of light evaporated into the night blackness as he counted the stars as they began to appear.
He rolled over to the side of his porta-ledge. The material creaked as he shimmied his body over. Looking down into the black void, he saw car lights flickering like fire flies in and out of the forest trees and across the quiet meadows. Then he rolled over and pulled half of his sleeping bag over his greasy head and battered body. I’m a lucky son-of-a-bitch, he thought to himself, and then closed his eyes.
The full moon came early that night and beamed like a light accidentally left on. It washed the stars away. Ian woke up. He peered at the moonlight reflecting off the huge granite walls. It was as if he were staring into an eerie hall of mirrors.
“Whoa...” he whispered.
He then closed his eyes and let the image etch into his retina, then into his memory. All was silent except for the Merced River far below, the icy vein of life that stretched from the high mountain tops to the lush valley floor below and across the flat farmlands to the ocean.
He imagined another time when glaciers filled this valley and sent these waters raging to the sea. It was an ancient cycle. Only now, the once raging waters had now slowed to a soft hush as they flowed across the pesticide filled farmlands and polluted cities to the sea. Ian fell back into a restless slumber.
By late afternoon, Ian had climbed the upper reaches of El Cap and finished his solo ascent of Zodiac, one of Yosemite’s classic big wall climbs. He stared down at the cluttered valley below. The cars, busses, lodges, tents, and thousands of spectators were strewn out along the floor of the valley like colorful trash spilled from a can. “Too bad the Ice Age is over,” Ian said to himself. “This place could use a big flush.” But amazingly, the thin emerald green Merced still managed to find its way through it all and that made Ian smile.
Later that evening, on his drive home, as he washed his swollen hands in the cold Merced, he marveled at the late fall colors. He knew it was time to stash the rock climbing gear and wax up his winter quiver. The reefs and swelling river mouths would soon be alive and it’d be time to conquer other mountains.
After a few weeks of rest and some much needed home repairs, Ian was again back on the road searching for the source. He knew of a clogged river mouth that had probably opened back up after the first heavy rains last week. He wanted to surf it before the bars broke down.
He drove the winding road out to the coast. From a pullout he saw where the river mouth spilled into the sea. He saw perfect empty a-frames held delicately back by off-shore winds. Ian smiled.
He popped his trunk. Today he wanted to last forever, but he knew it’d only a few hours at best. He stared up at the gathering rain clouds and wondered if Yosemite had received its first snows yet. He could picture El Capitan frozen there in time like a relic from the ice age, a giant popsicle. He reluctantly pulled off his warm clothes and quickly pulled on his wetsuit.
After the cold paddle out, he found the best bar, then lined it up with a cluster of trees just inland of the dunes. A large bump lumbered in from the horizon quietly moved his way and then lurched up forming a pointy mountain of ocean in front of him.
Ian stroked hard and deep. He rose up and then plunged into the liquid valley, arms rising above his head, floating him as if he were a bird. He laid it over on a rail and then drifted back up to mid-face in slow motion. He dragged his back hand across the wave’s grey-green ruffled face. The off-shores howled and froze the lip, a hooking statue of stone, until it finally cascaded over him.
Ian was sucked up into the living cycle, riding the vein pulsing from the mountains down into the heart of the sea. He pumped up and down, moving in and out of the shadow of the falling lip. He wanted to make this first wave, his first tube of the winter. But just as he was about to explode from the depths of the spinning cavern, his board just stopped, a clot in the artery, and he flew headfirst over the nose of his board as the zippering curtain closed down around him.
After somersaulting across the newly formed sand bars, he emerged in disbelief. His leash was still tight and his board was stuck in a wad of kelp. He swam towards his board and pulled again, then reached to untangle it. But to his surprise it wasn’t kelp, but a huge tangle of black plastic that had floated out to sea, someone’s backyard trash. The next set pushed him back to the water’s edge.
Once on shore, he drug the clot from the water and set about untangling himself. After fifteen minutes he screamed into the howling wind, “Fuckin’ piece of shit!”. After a half-hour had passed, he collapsed, panting on the sand in the rain with ribbons of black plastic all around him, catching the off-shore winds, drifting like cancer back into the sea.
Beware the People Person
Posted on: May 5, 2008
If I end up with another climbing partner who turns out to be a “people person” I’m going to rip their head off.
Once in the High Sierra, while rambling through the Cathedral Range on a quest for as many summits as I could manage, I had a partner tell me that they wanted to go home after we had only climbed one peak. When I asked why, they replied, “Because it’s raining.”
Of course, only later do I find out that she didn’t like sloshing up wet granite just to bag summits. It wasn’t “fun”. It was about the “journey” for her.
I just wish they’d stop ambushing me and tell me up front that they don’t care about getting to the summit, that they’re mostly looking forward to sipping hot chocolate and toasting S’mores and playing cards out in the woods. That kind of honesty would save us all a lot of headache.
Another time I had a successful 3 day, 6 summit spree on the East Side. While driving back at 1a.m. I asked my very chatty partner if he could drive. My eyes wouldn’t stay open and I didn’t want to ruin a good trip by wrecking my car, or killing us.
He gave me an enthusiastic “Sure!” and we switched places. I buckled up, wadded up my sweater for a pillow and curled up against the window for a nap.
“What are you doing?” he asked me, his enthusiasm now gone.
“Going to sleep.”
“You can’t do that. You have to stay up and TALK to me...”
See what I mean.
It’s like they’re everywhere these days. And every one of them sold themselves as being rough and tough, real outdoor types, climbers to the bone. Not one said, “Look Tom, I’m not really concerned about getting to the top. It’s about the journey for me. I want to have fun.”
What gives? Isn’t getting to the top fun? I know that the climbing media is pushing this new Light, Fast and Friendly climbing, but I had no idea that it was taking root.
Why can’t they just leave us to our heavy packs, haul bags, and “summit or bust” attitudes? I, for one, feel like a real man when I lumber through the wilderness with a pack that weighs as much as a refrigerator. Not everyone can do that you know. And what’s with free climbing the grade VI aid routes in a day? Quit ripping off the aid routes. Where’s your creativity? Why not just go do a long free first ascent instead? Plus, don’t they know that they can carry more gear in a haul bag than they can in a tiny little day pack? It’s just common sense.
These light and fast guys miss out on a lot too, including bivouacs! That’s the whole point of doing a big wall anyway. The solitude of a night up on the wall under the stars, far away from the hot chocolate-drinking, card-playing, S’more-toasting pansies.
Maybe it’s because I’m old school, but things seem to be getting out of control. Guys are getting softer. Once, when I was a youngster, on my first trip up a 14,000 foot peak, my boot sole came unglued halfway up the12-mile approach. My two older partners looked at my boot, looked at me and said,
”Bummer. Give us the rack. We’ll see you in a couple of days.”
I opened my pack, gave them the rack, and that was that. They went up the trail and I headed back down to the car.
Did I cry? Did I whine? Did I complain? Hell, no. I hiked 5 miles back to the car, drove into Bishop, bought new boots, dove back to the trailhead, hiked 12 miles up to Sam Mac Meadow and passed out. Two days later I had my first 14,000 foot peak bagged.
Now, just for fun, let’s replay that scenario. But this time, instead of 3 real men, let’s add a people person to the team...
Climber One: ”Guys, my boot sole is coming unglued!
Climber Two: ”No way. Man, let’s all hike back to the car together and reassess the situation. Maybe we’ll do this another time.”
Climber Three: ”What the hell are you talking about? I’m not hiking 5 miles back down to the car just to hold this guy’s hand!”
Climber Two: “Surely you don’t suggest that we just leave him!?”
Climber Three: ”That’s exactly what I’m suggesting. Are you insane! Give him the car key. He can go buy new boots and catch up with us later. He’s a big boy.”
Climber Two: ”You know, what you just said hurt my feelings. It’s not the summit that counts you know, it’s the journey. And...”
And you get the picture. Did these guys get to the summit? Not in this lifetime. Climber three soloed it and the other two went back to camp and drank hot chocolate, played cards, and toasted S’mores. Then they probably went into town and watched "Brokeback Mountain" and shared popcorn.
I highly doubt that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay talked about how they felt on their way to the summit of Everest. I bet it was pretty damn hard talking at all considering the oxygen masks and all. But did that stop them? Was it all about the journey? Or was it about getting to the top?
And did they travel fast and light? Ha ha, not hardly. But I guarantee you that after it was all over, their friendship was stronger because of their experience, because of their success.
You see, it’s the old school guys like me, with our heavy packs, hard words, and summit-or-bust attitudes, that are forging the real friendships. We forge them out of sweat, blood and cuss words. They’re cast iron. And when we’ve been to the top and back, we’ll have the scars to prove it.